Giant Spiders, the Action Economy, and Your Game

Last session, my D&D party had a great RP-driven evening, having just survived a huge throwdown with a fiend-controlled Arch-druid, a humongo spider, and a zillion spiderlings.

That fight is what I wanted to talk about today. I really like 5e’s Legendary action system. I think it’s a great way to address the primacy of action economy in the game.

What’s an action economy?

It’s the idea that in a tactical combat game, having more actions is a huge advantage. In earlier versions of D&D, a 5-person party vs. a dragon instantly had the advantage if the dragon only got one action per round, even if they got claw/claw/bite.

In the recent X-Com games, you want to get the upgrade that lets you bring a fifth squad member into missions as soon as possible, as it gives you more actions per turn. Having a fifth person is an advantage aside from that, but what I want to focus on right now is the actions. Who has them, how many, and when?

In this case, the spider got a Legendary Action (mostly webbing and biting) and the Lair Actions involved birthing new spiders to throw at us (ala spawning mobs/adds in a raid).

The Legendary/Lair Actions made the combat feel much less in our control, systematized the rate of new monsters coming in, and made the boss feel like a Boss.

The last boss we fought before the spider was a powerful necromancer who had been built up over several sessions as A Big Deal. But then, our party totally overwhelmed him, esp. thanks to our Smite-tastic vengeance Paladin and having several spell-casters who could counter-spell and use Dispel Magic. Even with undead minions around, the necromancer just didn’t have the opportunity to really put the pressure on us or keep away from our DPS. Legendary Actions would have changed that a lot. They become less special if every notable enemy has them, but maybe that’s okay?

The Ruler Reactions in the X-Com 2 expansion are a similar system, whereby the Ruler characters (special unique bosses) get a Ruler Reaction after every one of your characters acts. This means they can move around, punish characters that move out into the open, etc. Being able to interrupt and/or act out of turn is a *huge* tactical asset in turn-based games. The Chosen characters in the War of the Chosen expansion don’t get Ruler Reactions, but they do have a large # of actions per turn, allowing them to move in, attack, and then retreat to cover, etc. Some of your characters get similar bonus actions, especially the Skirmisher. Having all of those active at once could get tricky, but it re-shapes the flow of play, making it far less a game of big chunks of “my turn, their turn” and much more of a fast-paced thrust/parry/riposte kind of game.

Anyone else been playing D&D with Legendary/Lair Actions or have stories of Rulers/Chosen from X-Com to share? Or other games that use the same kind of systems?

 

Solipsism and Celebrities

  • The 80s saw, for example: Call of Cthulhu (81), Paranoia (84), Ars Magica (87), d6 Star Wars (87), Cyberpunk 2013 (88), Shadowrun (89).
  • The 90s brings the World of Darkness, Torg, Amber, Underground, Blue Planet, 7th Sea, Aberrant
  • In the 2000s you get the Forge/Story Games movement (Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc.), D&D 3.0, the OGL, etc.
  • And in the 2010s we have Apocalypse World and Powered by the Apocalypse games, RPG Kickstarters, Tons of anniversary editions of old RPGs (WoD 20th anniversary editions, 7th Sea 2.0, etc.), Pathfinder’s rise, D&D 5e, Critical Role, Roll20, etc.

Where’s the stagnation in there? I see mechanical innovation, troupe play, bridging across to other genre influences, acting techniques, roleplay theory, scene framing, etc.. And that was just a short thread overview of a way more complicated and nuanced tradition.

It’s okay to say “I got bored with RPGs, but since video games have become so much their own thing, I got excited about RPGs again.”

It’s also sensible to say that technological innovation with streaming and podcasts enabled RPGs to become an outward-facing art form and that Podcasts of Acquisitions, Inc. PAX events, and streaming games like Critical Role turned small group experiences into shared experiences. Yeah, for sure. You don’t get The Adventure Zone or Friends at the Table being A Thing without the rise of podcasts.

Roll20, Skype, & other systems let people re-connect with childhood friends to play across a continent or play w/people they’ve never met. *Raises hand* That’s me. Playing a Roll20 D&D game with old SCA friends and their friends.

There was this trend in confessional gamer memoirs in the 2000s where the white male gamer waxes rhapsodic about loving RPGs as a kid, about how it was this secret only he and his friends knew about and appreciated. But then he “discovered” girls, went to college, and/or “grew up” and cast RPGs aside, only to re-discover his love for them later, returning not just with nostalgia, but with renewed appreciation. Harmon’s bit seems like this, but probably across a different life path. It’s okay to have left and come back, but RPGS were always here.

WoD (World of DarknesS) and esp. Mind’s Eye Theater enabled women to claim space in RPGing that had been largely denied. Women & people from other marginalized populations/identities have always played RPGs, but World of Darkness and its LARPs were a major vector by which even more people got into RPGs, continuing to shift the balance away from the straight white male perceived monolith.

Yes, this is a golden age of RPGing, but it’s not because of video games. Video games & Tabletop RPGs have evolved in tandem, borrowing back and forth from one another, but tabletop is not a symbiote thriving only because of video games.

Do better, Dan Harmon. Like it or not, you’re seen as a major name in RPGs now because of HarmonQuest. Do right by the community people see you as representing. You need to roll better on your Save vs. Be That Guy.

P.S. Shout-out to SF writer John Appel for strong contributions to this original twitter thread.

Light a Candle

Things have been pretty scary the past few weeks, even within the hard year that 2017 has been. We had a family health scare just a little while ago (all better now), plus the ongoing garbage fire that is US politics.

So I wanted to spend a bit of time focusing on things that have been bringing joy and light into my life, in case these things could do the same for you. At the bottom, I list some resources I’ve been using to stay up to date on politics with a minimum of hassle/frustration.

Sources of Joy

One of the things I do to relax is listening to podcasts. I started listening to podcasts over ten years ago when I was out in Oregon doing my M.A. in Folklore. Back then, the only show I listened to was Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing. These days, I’m a part of two podcasts and subscribe to many more. The two below have been particularly helpful for me this summer:

Friends at the Table – A marvelous actual-play tabletop role-playing game podcast with great players, engrossing worlds, and amazing music by composer Jack de Quidt (who is also one of the players). The current season Twilight Mirage is especially engrossing, telling the tale of a far-future utopia in crisis.

Waypoint Radio – The home podcast of video game website Waypoint. They focus less on giving games scores and more on story structure, design, and the political dimensions of games. They sometimes also talk politics (esp. labor and health policy) and are clear and open in their progressive leanings.

When I’m not listening to podcasts, I am often chilling out with my wife watching TV or watching something in the background while I work on this or that. Here are some shows and video series that have brought me joy the past few months:

DuckTales – The original show was one of my favorite cartoons as a kid, and the 2017 remake on DisneyXD is very amusing so far. I am a total sucker for anything that plays in the ‘modern multi-genre pulp’ mode where mummies and vampire and Atlantis and so on are all real.

Breakfast & Battlegrounds – This is a video series on Waypoint comprised of recordings of the game Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. Breakfast & Battlegrounds is complete with a (funny, loose) continuity, special music (boat jazz!) and fun special guests. Austin & Patrick from Waypoint play as father & son team Crowbar & Sickle, in search of the elusive Chicken Dinner of victory. The most fun I’ve had watching a video game in some time.

Killjoys – A fun, sexy, space-based action-adventure series which starts with great episodic stories and builds to a cool metaplot. The showrunner is the same as the urban fantasy series Lost GirlKilljoys is about a pair of space-age bounty hunters called Killjoys who travel The Quad (four planet/moons bound together by a corporate-owned government).

And of course, since I’m a gamer, here’s a recent game I loved playing:

Pyre – The new game from Supergiant Games, who created Bastion and Transistor. It’s a cool fantasy combination of a visual novel/choose your own adventure and a magical sports game. The biggest draw for me in this game is the cool characters and their evolving relationships with one another. Also, you can complete a play-through in about 10-12 hours.

Podcasts
Pod Save America
 – Ex-Obama staffers break down the news and snark along the way. Unabashedly Democrat-leaning & progressive, a bit bro-y, though not gross.
Pod Save The People – Activist Deray Mckesson provides a grassroots view on politics, with a strong focus on the impact to and organizing by communities of color.

Website
What The Fuck Just Happened Today? – Trump-focused digest of American political news.

Just Keep Swimming

You know how ducks swimming along look all chill, but if you look under the water, they’re paddling away? That’s me, right now. I’ve got a bunch of balls in the air, so I’ve been spending more time traveling for work, writing, and submitting than on blogging.

Here’s what I’m up to right now:

1) Doing a read-through of Hexomancy to set revision objectives. I’m 251 pages into a 318 page document, and so far, I think Hexomancy is the sharpest, most fun Ree Reyes story yet. I’m really happy with the rough, so I think revision should go fairly smooth.

2) Working with Agent Sara on project proposals to send out into the world. This includes the project Formerly Known As Metaphysical Fencing Academy as well as another project from from PITCHAPALOOZA. The third thing prepping to make the rounds is a Shiny New Idea that I’m particularly excited about.

3) Developing the Shiny New Idea. Said Shiny New Idea is especially exciting because it was created in direct response to my Business Brain going to Creative Brain like it was a TV executive or an editor and said “Hey, Creative Brain. I want to do X thing, business-wise, so bring me a saleable idea that fits models X and Y, preferably in Genre Q.” And Shiny New Idea was the result. I have so many different ideas that I get excited by that it was actually fun to give myself a market-based challenge, saying “I dare you (self) to come up with something cool that fits this business agenda,” and then to do it.

Guacamelee art - by Drink Box Studios

Guacamelee – by Drink Box Studios

In addition, I’ve been really enjoying a video game called Guacamelee, a Castlevania/Metroid-style Mexican Fantasy game starring a Luchador. It’s pleasantly bonkers, and really rather hard, especially since my USB controller doesn’t work with my laptop. I’d play on my desktop, but that’s hooked up to my standing desk, and I’m still recovering from the knee injury from back in February (I got X-Rays, so Medical Responses are in progress).

Other than that, I’m coming up to NYC this weekend to lead a Writecraft workshop at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn. Hope to see you there!

Review: Stargate Universe “Air Part 1&2”

I watched the Stargate film back in 1994 when it came to theatres, and then when Stargate: SG-1 came around, I didn’t bother watching it.  I watched a season-and-a-half or so of Stargate:Atlantis, and was usually amused. But I have many friends who swear by various parts of the Stargate-verse, loving SG-1 and trashing on Atlantis, loving-but-criticizing-Atlantis and not caring about SG-1, etc.

So when I saw that there was a new, supposedly stand-alone Stargate series, I took notice.  The casting of Robert Carlyle in the lead went a long way towards getting my attention, as did the concept.

For those not already in the know, here’s the breakdown:  Stargate Universe is about a group of people who get trapped on an ancient spaceship made by a predecessor species only known as the Ancients.  The ship was designed to tour the universe, and from time to time opens up a dimensional portal (the Stargates, natch) to a habitable planet in the surrounding galaxy.  The Stargate remains open for a finite amount of time, and the ship is on auto-pilot, preventing the heroes from taking control of its route.  Using the gate to get back to Earth or to get from Earth to the ship (called the Destiny) is tremendously-plot-says-don’t-do-it difficult.  The tone seems to be substantially darker than previous Stargate series, prompting people to dub it Stargate Galactica or BattleStargate, likening it to the critically-acclaimed 2004-09 Battlestar Galactica.

The overall formula seems to be (Stargate + LOST) x (Sliders + Battlestar Galacatica) = Stargate Universe — which is certainly not a bad mixture of inspirations.

A more detailed and spoilery review follows:

Continue reading

The Matrix: 10 Years Later

On March 31st, 10 years ago, a film called The Matrix hit movie theatres and took the film industry/pop culture world by storm. It lead to copy-cats in content, style, and in technology (The Matrix‘s ‘Bullet-cam’ became the ‘effect to do’ for the first several years of the 21st century in action movies)

It was lauded for its originality, but really, it was a combination of a plethora of influences and cultural properties which helped/help define a generation (Gen X, as the creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski). It was Hong Kong cinema made in the US, it was a live-action anime, it was pop-philosophy and comparative religion, it was cyberpunk and a blockbuster film all rolled up into one.

Transmedia Storytelling

It also launched one of the more successful transmedia properties of the last decade, as indicated by its use as an example in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture chapter “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling)” (Jenkins 2006).

The Matrix universe has grown from one cultural work to include three films, a collection of animated shorts (The Animatrix), several video games (Enter The Matrix, The Matrix: The Path of Neo), including a MMO (The Matrix Online), comic books (The Matrix Comics), and a variety of merchandising tie-ins.

As Jenkins says,

The Wachowski Bros. played the transmedia game very well, putting out the original film to stimulate interest, offering up a few Web comics to sustain the hard-core fan’s hunger for more information, launching the anime in anticipation of the second film, releasing the video game alongside it to surf the publicity, bringing the whole cycle to conclusion with The Matrix Revolutions, then turning the whole mythology over to the players of the massively multiplayer online game. Each step along the way built on what has come before, while offering new points of entry. (Jenkins, 2006).

In the hands of fans

An intrinsic part of successful transmedia storytelling is the creation of a setting that is generative of many stories. The premise of the Matrix allows for a nearly limitless number of stories to be told in a number of genres (A Detective Story is much more in line with the look and feel of Film Noir, whereas “Program” is steeped in samurai action (Chanbara). Since the Matrix itself is a programmed shared universe, it can be modified to fit different desires and perspectives. Why is it that Detective’s Ash world looked so different than Neo’s world? It’s not difficult to read in the possibility that there are/were a number of servers, with different settings (a noir world, a cyberpunk world, etc.) But even without having to fill in the gaps of the setting by making these readings, there are many different places for a number of stories. This allows for fan creativity to enter into the picture, another essential part of a vibrant transmedia property.

The Wachowskis/WB can lay out the official path of transmedia cultural flow between games and films and comics, but if transmedia storytelling universes are maps, there is space beside the roads and outside the buildings in addition to those official pathways and locations. There is always room for fan-fiction, other games, fan art, vidding, and much more.

I remember playing a home-brewed Matrix table-top roleplaying game the summer of 1999, a game designed by friends so that we could tap into the awesomeness of the Matrix setting, even drawn in as limited a fashion as it was when the only data point was the original film. The mythology/setting of the Matrix had proven compelling enough to lead us to make our own ways to interact with the Matrix universe on our own terms, when not provided with an official outlet. A smart transmedia author/creator will encourage this informal/unofficial play/interaction, as it inevitably leads fans/customers back to the official parts, the ones that convert into sales.

Benefits of the transmedia approach

Unofficial transmedia play is free advertising. It keeps fans thinking about the property and shows/develops their level of involvement and investment. The more you play in the world of the matrix, the more it can matter, and so the more you will continue to play, and the more you will reach out to others to join you.

The Matrix universe was far from the first transmedia storytelling venture. George Lucas’ Star Wars had become comics, video games, action figures, trivia games, board games, memorabilia and more decades before The Matrix. However, The Wachowskis & Co. did utilize new media technologies and digital cultural socialization to further its popularity with a strong online presence. The Matrix Comics were first shared online, and preview videos of the Animatrix were available exclusively on the web before the DVD release.

A transmedia approach also allows a cultural property to become a franchise, with film, television, comics, video games, and other media to be tied in, allowing a tv show to reach out to video gamers and to comics readers, building its fan base with every new node in the transmedia map.

Other properties since have followed the transmedia model, but we can remember The Matrix property as one of the most commercially successful examples in recent memory. While opinions on the 2nd and 3rd films vary wildly, it is hard to deny the economic success and cultural impact of the Matrix property, and much of that is due to a transmedia storytelling and marketing approach.

Escape From City-17 Part One

The Purchase Brothers have released the first episode of a Half-Life 2 fan video Escape From City-17.

Episode 1:

Now that you’ve watched it — here’s the really impressive part — the first two episodes were made on $500. It’s a marvel how far you can get when people work for the love.

The video liberally uses effects and designs from the video game to great effect (which also serves to make the production cheaper) — the flatline sounds for the Combine Police, the gun FX, and re-works the computer effects of the tripods and Combine ships.

We’ve seen only a bit of characterization so far, but the premise provides more than enough narrative momentum for now.

Escape From City-17 is one of a growing number of professional-level fan videos which, through new media outlets such as YouTube, serve as a training and proving ground for up-and-coming directors/animators/actors. It’s a formula already proven by Felicia Day’s The Guild, LonelyGirl15, etc. Escape From City-17 is additionally impressive due to the effects involved. Rather than having to move to LA (or an equivalent film center–I’m going to speak from a USA perspective) and spend years trying to break in, creators can make their own works, distribute and advertise via YouTube, MySpace, Facebook, etc., and some of them break through. The chance of success may not be any better than breaking in by going to LA, but the opportunity cost is much less, as it doesn’t force creators to up-root and move across the country/world.

This is only the first episode, so we have more coming. The Purchase Brothers have already been in contact with Valve, so I imagine we will see much more from this team.

Review — Portal

The Cake is a Lie.

Underneath a clever physics game is gleeful homicidal glee with a cute voice.  Valve’s Portal, originally packaged in with Half-Life: The Orange Box, is a gem of a game that earned countless accolades last year.

Portal takes the simple idea of a two-way portal gun and makes a whole (if short) game around it, showing off their physics engine and their dark sense of humor.

In Portal, the closest thing you get to a weapon is the portal gun, which can shoot at a plane and create a portal on that plane, which connects to the other end of the portal, which you also deploy.  This lets you get up high to push buttons, or to send plasma balls around corners to activate switches, or to jump through the portal so you can jump through the portal again and use the accumulated velocity to jump up to new platforms.  The game is a clear test of the user’s physics knowledge and critical/spatial problem solving skills.

I also think it should be used in Physics classes world-wide, as possible.  The idea of vectors, conservation of momentum, and many other principles of physics are at work in Portal.

But if Portal were just a physics tutorial in game form, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun.  Along the way, your guide/host/jailkeeper is GlaDOS, an erratic computer that talks you through the early puzzles, unraveling to reveal its sadistic streak and its nature as the architect of countless attempts on your character’s life.  Physics experiments to test the portal gun and human ingenuity give way to the increasingly dangerous tests, where the player is prompted to design complex plans of layered portal use, planning several steps ahead.

Portal is the exact kind of video game that Steven Johnson (of Everything Bad is Good For You) declares as laudable — not only does the player have to explore and probe the world of the game, they are forced to think critically, implement their spatial awareness/intelligence, and are rewarded for their cleverness but also their curiosity, as occasional glimpses behind the curtains reveal previous test-subjects desperate scrawlings on the walls between the test areas, writings that indicate GlaDOS’s hidden agenda, the virtues of the companion cube (a weighted cube that is used as the only other tool at the character’s disposal), and most of all, that

The Cake is a Lie.

“Still Alive,” the game’s theme song, has become a geek music classic, makings its way through the livejournal/blogosphere shortly after the game’s release, and helping to catapult Geek Rocker Jonathan Coulton (who wrote the song) into the limelight within the subculture.  Another indicator of “Still Alive”‘s fan appeal can be seen in the fact that it was released as a free downloadable track for the game Rock Band.

The game is now available for download on XBox Live arcade, which is how I played it.  It is more than a mere tech demo wrapped in a thin game shell, and that elevation is thanks to tone and style– if GlaDOS had been unironic and uninflected, she/it would have been just another stereotypical computer-gone-evil.  Instead, she has earned a place as an iconic computer-gone-evil, appearing beside favorites such as HAL9000

Everything interesting about Portal adds up to a charmingly demented game that will make you laugh while you’re running around trying not to get blown up and figuring out how to arrange portals so you can get to the next room.